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The term kathoey or katoey (, ) generally refers to a male-to-female transgender person or an effeminate gay male in Thailand. Related phrases include sao (or phuying) praphet song (,"a second kind of woman"), or phet thi sam (, "third sex"). The word kathoey is thought to be of Khmer origin[1] (the equivalent Khmer word is "kteuy").[2] It is most often rendered as ladyboy in English conversation with Thais and this latter expression has become popular across South East Asia except in the Philippines where the term bakla[3] is often used.

General description

The term "kathoey" is not an exact equivalent of the modern Western trans woman — it suggests that the person is a type of male, unlike the term sao praphet song, which suggests a female sex identity, or phet thi sam, which suggests a third gender. The term phu-ying praphet thi sorng, which can be translated as "woman of the second kind", is also used to refer to kathoey.[4] Australian scholar of sexual politics in Thailand Peter Jackson claims that the term "kathoey" was used in premodern times to refer to intersexuals, and that the usage changed in the middle of the twentieth century to cover cross-dressing males.[5] The term can refer to males who exhibit varying degrees of femininity — many kathoeys dress as women and undergo feminising medical procedures such as hormone replacement therapy, breast implants, genital reassignment surgery, or Adam's apple reductions. Others may wear makeup and use feminine pronouns, but dress as men, and are closer to the western category of effeminate gay man than transgender.

The term "kathoey" may be considered pejorative, especially in the form "kathoey-saloey". It has a meaning similar to the English language "fairy" or "queen".[6]

Social context

Kathoey work in predominately female occupations, such as in shops, restaurants and beauty salons, but also in factories (a reflection of Thailand's high proportion of female industrial workers).[7] Kathoey also work in entertainment and tourist centers, in cabaret — Alcazar and Tiffanys in Pattaya are among the best known — and as sex workers.

Kathoeys are more visible and more accepted in Thai culture than transgender or transsexual people are in Western countries or the Indian subcontinent. Several popular Thai models, singers and movie stars are kathoeys, and Thai newspapers often print photos of the winners of female and kathoey beauty contests side by side. The phenomenon is not restricted to urban areas; there are kathoeys in most villages, and kathoey beauty contests are commonly held as part of local fairs.

Some believe that this higher acceptance is due to the nature of the surrounding Buddhist culture, which places a high value on tolerance. Using the notion of Karma, some Thai believe that being a kathoey is the result of transgressions in past lives, concluding that kathoey deserve pity rather than blame, but this view is held primarily by Western scholars.[8]

A common stereotype is that older well-off kathoey provide financial support to young men with whom they are in a personal relationship.[9]

Kathoey women currently face many social and legal impediments. Families (and especially fathers) are typically disappointed if a son becomes a kathoey, and kathoey women often have to face the prospect of coming out. However, kathoey generally have greater acceptance in Thailand than most other Asian countries.[10] Legal recognition of kathoeys is non-existent in Thailand: even after genital reassignment surgery, they are not allowed to change their legal sex. Discrimination in employment remains rampant.[11] Issues can also arise in regards to access to amenities and gender allocation; for example, a kathoey who had undergone sexual reassignment surgery would still have to stay in an all-male prison.

Recent developments

In 1993 Thailand's teacher training colleges had implemented a semi-formal ban on allowing homosexual (which included kathoey) students enrolling in courses leading to qualification for positions in kindergartens and primary schools. In January 1997 the Rajabhat Institutes (the governing body of the colleges) announced it would formalize the ban, which would extend to all campuses at the start of the 1997 academic year. The ban was quietly rescinded later in the year following the replacement of the Minister of Education.[12]

In 1996, a volleyball team composed mostly of gays and kathoeys, known as the The Iron Ladies (, satree lek), later portrayed in two Thai movies, won the Thai national championship. The Thai government, concerned with the country's image, barred two of the kathoey from joining the national team and competing internationally.

Among the most famous kathoeys in Thailand is Nong Tum, a former champion Thai boxer who emerged into the public eye in 1998. She was already cross-dressing and taking hormones while still a popular boxer; she would enter the ring with long hair and makeup, occasionally kissing a defeated opponent. She announced her retirement from professional boxing in 1999 — undergoing genital reassignment surgery, while continuing to work as a coach, and taking up acting and modeling. She returned to boxing in 2006.

In 2004, the Chiang Mai Technology School allocated a separate restroom for kathoeys, with an intertwined male and female symbol on the door. The 15 kathoey students are required to wear male clothing at school but are allowed to sport feminine hairdos. The restroom features four stalls, but no urinals.[13]

Following the Military Coup in Thailand in 2006 kathoeys are hoping for a new third sex to be added to passports and other official documents in a proposed new constitution.[14] In 2007, legislative efforts have begun to allow kathoeys to change their legal sex if they have undergone genital reassignment surgery; this latter restriction was controversially discussed in the community.[11]


Revues and music groups

Following a similar group in South Korea, the first all kathoey music group in Thailand was formed in 2006. It is named Venus Flytrap and was selected and promoted by Sony BMG Music Entertainment.[15]

The Lady Boys of Bangkok is a kathoey revue that has been performed in the UK since 1998 touring the country in both theatres and the famous "Sabai Pavillion" for 9 months each year.


Ladyboys is a 1992 documentary film made for Channel 4 TV and directed by Jeremy Marre. It relates the story of two teenage kathoey who prepare for and enter a rural beauty contest and then leave for Pattaya to find work in a cabaret revue.

The story of the 1996 Iron Ladies volleyball team underlies the humorous and successful 2000 movie The Iron Ladies and the 2003 sequel The Iron Ladies 2.

The 2002 Thai film Saving Private Tootsie tells the story of a group of gays and kathoey who need to be rescued after a plane crash in rebel-held jungle territory. The film explores anti-gay attitudes in various ways. It is loosely based on an incident in December 1998 when a group including a popular singer and his kathoey makeup artist survived a plane crash.

The life of the kathoey kick boxer Nong Tum is related in the 2003 movie Beautiful Boxer. Unlike The Iron Ladies 1 & 2, Beautiful Boxer used a serious tone.

In the 2005 Thai martial arts film The Warrior King or Tom yum goong, the main villain, Madame Rose, is a kathoey, and there are two references to this in the film (for the US release these were edited out). She is played by Jin Xing who is herself transgendered.


The book Ladyboys: The Secret World of Thailand's Third Gender gives an intimate portrait of Thailand's kathoey. It is a collection of authentic stories about journeys of self-discovery by those who have struggled with gender identity while trying to maintain normal lives and careers. The book features some of Thailand's celebrity ladyboys such as Boxer Nong Toom as well as the life of others such as a magazine columnist, a cabaret performer and a prostitute. The book was written by Susan Aldous and Pornchai Sereemongkonpol and published in May 2008 by Maverick House Publishers.

See also


  1. Jackson, Peter A. (April 1996). Non-normative Sex/Gender Categories in the Theravada Buddhist Scriptures. Retrieved on 5 December 2009.
  2. Earth, Barbara (2008), "Diversifying Gender: male to female transgender identities and HIV/AIDS programming in Phnom Penh Cambodia", in Welbourn, Alice & Hoare, Joanna, HIV and AIDS, Oxfam, p. 62, ISBN 0855986034, <http://books.google.com/books?id=dIvD6eyT27UC&pg=PA62&lpg=PA62&d#v=onepage&q=&f=false>
  3. Benedicto, Bobby. “The Haunting of Gay Manila: Global Space-Time and the specter of Kabaklaan.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14.2-3 (2008): 317-338.
  4. Jackson, Peter (1999). Lady Boys, Tom Boys, Rent Boys: Male and Female Homosexualities in Contemporary Thailand. Haworth Press, 146. ISBN 0789006561. 
  5. Jackson, Peter (2003). Performative Genders, Perverse Desires: A Bio-History of Thailand's Same-Sex and Transgender Cultures. in "Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context," Issue 9, August 2003. See paragraph "The Homosexualisation of Cross-Dressing."
  6. CPAmedia.com: Thailand's Women of the Second Kind
  7. Winter S, Udomsak N (2002). Male, Female and Transgender: Stereotypes and Self in Thailand. International Journal of Transgenderism. 6,1
  8. Totman, Richard (2003). The Third Sex: Kathoey: Thailand's Ladyboys. London: Souvenir Press, 57. ISBN 0285636685. 
  9. Thailand, in The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, Volume I–IV 1997–2001, edited by Robert T. Francoeur
  10. "Boys Will Be Girls", Time Asia, Daffyd Roderick.  Retrieved February 19, 2008
  11. 11.0 11.1 Are you man enough to be a woman? Bangkok Post, 1 October 2007
  12. Jackson, Peter (1999). Lady Boys, Tom Boys, Rent Boys: Male and Female Homosexualities in Contemporary Thailand. Haworth Press, xv-xiv. ISBN 0789006561. 
  13. "Transvestites Get Their Own School Bathroom", Associated Press, June 22, 2004.
  14. "Thailand’s ‘third sex’ seeks legal recognition". The First Post. May 17, 2007.
  15. "‘Katoeys’ hit the music scene", The Star, 3 February 2007.

External links


*Some information provided in whole or in part by http://en.wikipedia.org/